Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Gus Van Sant

Last Days

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On June 27 I sat down with Gus Van Sant to talk about his baffling, yet remarkable new film Last Days, which loosely imagines what might have happened in the hours leading up to the death of a rock star that resembles Kurt Cobain. When I last spoke to Mr. Van Sant about Gerry, we had an entire lunch hour. This time we had quite a bit less. I felt I needed a little more time to get inside this movie -- not to mention that Mr. Van Sant was being somewhat cagey about the movie's ultimate intentions. Still, I think he gave some interesting comments.

CC: Michael Pitt did an extraordinary job of capturing the essence of Kurt Cobain. Since the character was named "Blake" and not "Kurt," did you discourage or encourage this?

GVS: That's all Mike. I had just imagined that Mike would just be Mike. It wasn't going to be like a recreation, physically, of the character. But he wanted to do that, so he kind of got into it and really sort of channeled him. Which I found fascinating. I liked it. But it was different than I thought we would do.

CC: You kept his face off camera for almost ten minutes -- was this to encourage the idea that it's really Kurt Cobain in spirit?

GVS: Eventually you were going to see his face, so the shooting style was to not have every scene have -- a lot of the time you're mixing wide, medium and close. In our philosophy, we just chose an angle. We didn't intend to intercut. We did shoot a close-up at the river, but it seemed too soon to see his face. It was in the cut for a while.

CC: How do you plan a wandering film like this one? Do you storyboard?

GVS: There's no storyboard. I don't really storyboard. Mala Noche was storyboarded, and I followed it. Drugstore Cowboy, I storyboarded the first third of the movie, and then on the first couple days of shooting, I realized it was way too complicated. I could never follow the storyboards. There was way too much stuff. I needed a much longer shooting schedule. So I started doing something completely different, which was covering the scene with long tracking shots, intending to cut out the tracking parts. The reason I did that was that I could combine a wide shot -- there were four characters sitting on a couch -- of one character, and a close-up of the next character, etc. It would take 5 minutes to do that move, and it would linger on people. It was a way to fool the system. The light, the hair, the costumes, the dolly set up. There were so many things that I had never worked with, and each set up took a half an hour. It would be a half an hour for each character. I realized that if it's a dolly shot, it's not a half hour, it's more like 40 minutes, but you get four shots. Then you re-do the scene, except that you start on this person and you go backwards. And I did all the movies that way, all the way through Finding Forrester.

And then we stopped covering shots. We had one shot, starting with Gerry and Elephant and Last Days. But still no storyboards.

There's something that happens. I started realizing, maybe this is a new thing, but if you do things in a single shot, you can easily be dollying around -- you can have close ups and things -- but if you leave it as a single take, everything that's happening is actually happening during that one instance. So you get a performance that you usually don't really see in films because you're intercutting angles that are taken at different period of time. Unless you're cutting from a three-camera setup, like in an Altman movie, you are seeing the same scene, you're just seeing it from three different angles. I don't think it's the cutting that interrupts the scene, which is probably why Altman's scenes have their own personality. But it's similar because you have this thing that's going on with the actors that's very easy to miss. The actors know it's going on, and they always look at themselves and go, I know there was a better take. They cut out of the two-shot. Actors like two-shots because you can see the dynamics between the two characters. But until I started shooting this way I always thought that the actors were just being precious about their performances, but you start to realize that there's a whole vibe going on in the scene, that's organic, that is being run by the actors. It's being acted and reacted to by multiple people, and it's like music, like four musicians playing. And as soon as you break that and cut to a take that was done maybe 15 minutes later, all of a sudden there's this other reality. Which isn't a worse reality, it's just the reality we're used to. When you see the other side of it, it's actually kind of interesting, the vibe of a single take.

CC: Where did you find the house?

GVS: New York. There are certain things that reminded me of the house that they lived in, the grayness, but it was build at least 40 years before, the original house. It was on a lake, ours was on the Hudson. Our house was way up on a hill. It was the first thing we had seen, on a scout. And after scouting in Oregon and Washington, there was a house in Aberdeen that we almost used. We sort of realized that we couldn't really find it in the Northwest, and I realized that we should go back to New York.

CC: Can you please talk a little about Kim Gordon's scene?

GVS: It's a scene that isn't in the script, and it's a scene that I wanted to add because I thought there could be this other outside influence, sort of something that came from the outside that all of a sudden was just there, whether it was an executive. We called her a record executive, but it could have been a manager or a lawyer. Somebody that he knew and somebody that he had a relationship with and somebody he owed. I had Vincent Gallo in mind, because we thought he would be the really harsh voice of calling him on the carpet, and saying 'You're fucking the whole thing up. Not only you, but you're fucking me up and you're fucking my family up!' and just really screaming at him. Which I'm sure had to happen at some point in his last two years. And then we couldn't convince him on the phone. And the second idea was to use our DP, Harris Savides. And he was game, except that we knew that by the time we started shooting he would get really nervous because he's not really an actor. And then we remembered that Kim had said that she was interested in playing roles. And then we thought that it would be interesting if this woman showed up. In certain cases, I've learned -- just being around the business and making a bunch of videos -- there are certain people that are kind of the fixer. They fly in when things are going badly at the recording session when the band isn't talking. So I thought it could be somebody like that. Somebody he trusts. Also Kim knows that type of person.

CC: The key scene is the one in which the hangers on come in to talk to Blake. One starts telling a story and the other tells him to leave Blake alone. And you realize that nobody can connect with this guy. He's utterly alone in the world. He has all these people around, but no one knows who he is or how to talk to him.

GVS: Those characters are based on, again my own experiences of having lots of different friends and acquaintances that have posses. They're necessary. You need some kind of organization that surrounds you. The entourage is sometimes kind of an imposition to whoever it might be. And usually it means that that person is like a corporation all of a sudden. There's a lot of money. Other types of entourages become more like family when there's no money. But they become entourages, there's this money organization surrounding them. So they have to know where they are, and sort of keep them under... people have to help them be alone so they can write a song, or it could be that Scott comes in and drags Lucas away because he knows that Blake's gonna write a song. He's sitting there with a guitar. And in those situations, sometimes the entourage has friends over, like they aren't really part of the entourage. And it's like, 'whatever you do, don't bug the guy.'

CC: The seventh day Adventist guys and the yellow pages guy. I like them because they're these random intrustions of life. The kinds of things that a normal filmmaker would cut out because they don't advance the story.

GVS: I get those kinds of guys at my house. Probably I was writing, and somebody came to the door and I wrote them in.

CC: Do you have ways that you tie them in to the story in an emotional way?

GVS: Those two guys were from Aberdeen, and they were in this casting session. They were very unusual, just the way they talked and the way they behaved. They're fraternal twins. That's their real name. We asked them if they could play Mormons, and they had some knowledge of church, and they could ad lib about Jesus, and we told them we wanted them to play Mormons, and so they studied. They went and hung out with Mormons.

The telephone ad space salesman actually interrupted one of our fittings with Ann Roth, where Mike was trying on one of the dresses or something. He just walked in and thought it was a store. And he started picking up the glasses, those yellow glasses, and was looking at them. Because we were on the main street of Garrison, which is where all the flea markets are, inside these big barns. In our case, it was an office. He thought it was a store. I tried to tell him because he was near me, and Ann hadn't seen him yet. And I said, 'this isn't a store. This is a fitting for a movie.' And he just thought I was a guy in the store trying to get rid of him. And so he wasn't paying attention to me. And Ann turned around and said, 'this is my fitting! Who are you?' And he said, 'Hi, Thadeus Thomas, Yellow Pages.' And the way he said that, I just thought, 'Oh my God -- he's still going!' And he seemed to want to figure out who was the owner of the store because he was going to sell ad space. And I said, 'this guy's gotta be in it.' Because he's so uninterruptible.

CC: There's a scene where Blake is walking around outside, and on the soundtrack there appears to be a rushing stream noise and a wind chime noise.

GVS: That was part of the sound design. It was a recording that was added on. It's "The Doors of Perception" by Hildegarde Westercamp.

CC: I love that weird three-shot with Asia Argento sleeping, the TV showing some kind of martial arts demonstration and and Blake digging in the background.

GVS: It was originally how we introduced the characters. Originally it was following Blake all the way through his entire journey, and then it was following Asia through her entire journey, and then it was following the detective through his entire journey. There were four different journeys. Sort of like Elephant. Later I sort of chopped the script down because I realized that it wasn't going to work. But it was a connection. It was a place where they intersected. In this version, it's really just the angle that we could get. The reason we even had a TV, was that we were planning on giving you information on the TV set. It was going to be Kurt Loder saying that Blake had left after only one day he'd left rehab and he's missing and he's assumed to be traveling back to Seattle but no one knows where he is. And a little history of the band, and also maybe an interview with the Blake character.

June 27, 2005

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